We had an older woman who would babysit me when I was little. She’d knit. Walk me to the playground. And she’d talk about her son who was a professor of photography at the University of Florida. My dad was also a professor, at the UF medical school, and eventually she introduced them. Soon he and his wife were hanging out with my parents, even as his mom stayed home with me and my siblings. His name was Jerry Uelsmann and he was starting to get a name for himself with his disruptive photography. Where most photographers would snap a picture and then print it in a darkroom, Uelsmann would take many pictures, find elements he liked, and then go into a darkroom with an array of enlargers and assemble the pieces into a single dreamlike composite. Some image compositing had been done in the first 100 years of photography, but never with the nuance and sophistication of Uelsmann. Magically seamless; surreal and mysterious. Decades before Photoshop.
As a kid, I always loved going to Jerry Uelsmann’s home. It would be a Saturday, and we’d make the drive across the prairie to the edge of town to look at his newest pictures. He was the first photographer I had met, and he made an impression. His house was buried in the oak and Spanish moss, next to a pond that I was forbidden from exploring because there were alligators all around. But that was okay: I wanted to be inside.
Where my home, and every other home I’d ever visited, was orderly and ordinary — Uelsmann’s home was neatly chaotic, full of whimsy and interesting things to look at. Like a kid’s room. Antique wind-up toys, which he’d encourage me to wind up. Something on every surface. His wacky choice of objects, and particularly the juxtapositions of those objects, was a delight. There was a stuffed-animal moose head with a camera dangling around its neck, cherubic angels with election buttons, little figurines from a mix of cultures crowded around oversized hamburgers. His photographs were the same, full of funny, scary, and sexy juxtapositions, the composites way more interesting than any of the images alone. I noticed that objects and images had strikingly different meanings when arranged…